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UK PM pledges 'Rooseveltian' response to virus crisis

  • He intends to unveil a spending programme in a speech on Tuesday his office has dubbed "build, build, build".
June 30, 2020

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday the coronavirus crisis needed the type of massive economic response US president Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilised to deal with the Great Depression.

Johnson told The Times newspaper's new radio station that Britain was heading for "bumpy times" as it struggles through its biggest economic contraction on record.

He intends to unveil a spending programme in a speech on Tuesday his office has dubbed "build, build, build".

"I think this is the moment for a Rooseveltian approach to the UK," said Johnson. "I really think the investment will pay off."

Roosevelt launched the New Deal programme in the 1930s that created a comprehensive social care system whose legacy lives on to this day.

The first part of Johnson's initiative earmarks £1 billion ($1.2 billion) for school repairs.

"The country has gone through a profound shock," he said.

"We really want to build back better, to do things differently, to invest in infrastructure, transport, broadband -- you name it."

Change in style

The lockdowns imposed globally to fight the new disease have forced even the most prudent governments to unveil social safety nets that will put states deep into debt for years to come.

The true scale of Britain's unemployment problem will only be revealed once the government's furlough scheme for temporarily laid off workers begins being rolled backed in August.

The current spending programme has supported nine million jobs and cost the government tens of billions of pounds.

The independent Resolution Foundation think-tank said the government had little choice but to spend even more because "the virus will continue to hold activity below its pre-pandemic level".

Johnson should try to generate "job creation via direct public investment in social care and retrofitting", it said in a report.

The ruling Conservative party's newfound focus on spending comes with Labour trying to recover from a December election drubbing that cost the job of leader Jeremy Corbyn.

New opposition chief Keir Starmer -- a trained lawyer with a more pragmatic style -- offered to work with Johnson while more than 1,000 people were dying of COVID-19 a day in April.

But that comradery appears to be wearing off as the first wave of the health emergency passes and attention shifts to the economic response.

"It's staggering that in light of the economic crisis that is about to descend upon us that we are not having a July budget that puts jobs at the centre of economic recovery," Starmer said on Monday.

Local discontent

Pubs and restaurants along with most of the rest of the hospitality and leisure sectors in England will reopen next week for the first time since March 20.

But the easing could be delayed in the central English city of Leicester because of a reported spike in new infections.

Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby said he has received instructions from London to postpone the reopening but labelled as "superficial" the government's assessment of the health problems in his city of 500,000.

"Its description of Leicester is inaccurate and certainly it does not provide us with the information we need if we are to remain restricted for two weeks longer than the rest of the country," he said.

Leicester City Council's public health director Ivan Browne said the new infections were mostly being reported among younger people who are less susceptible to COVID-19.

"It's very much around the younger working-age population," Browne said.

Johnson's office said ministers would make a formal announcement after discussing their options with Leicester officials on Monday.